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10/28/2005
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IBM Prevents Brain Drain With Mentoring Program

As Big Blue sells its consulting services to companies coping with a graying workforce, it is also taking unique steps to prevent brain drain. Fran Allen, as one example, still helps out in an IBM research lab, even though she doesn't get paid.

Fran Allen loves her job even though she doesn't get paid.

She retired three years ago but still goes to IBM's research laboratory to help out and discuss the latest projects and problems.

Allen reports to work whenever she feels like it, thanks to a Research Emeritus Program at IBM. As Big Blue sells its consulting services to companies coping with a graying workforce, it is also marking 12 years of its mentoring program. Allen is held up by the company as an example of its success in taking steps to prevent brain drain or loss of institutional knowledge.

And it's no wonder.

The first woman to receive the highest technical honor of IBM Fellow, Allen grew up in a poor rural community in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Mountains. As a North Country farm girl in upstate New York, she saw three choices for life after high school. She could marry a farmer, become a nurse, or teach.

She chose to teach math and enrolled in Albany State Teacher's College, now the State University of New York at Albany. She went on to earn her Master's Degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, because that's where she could find the financial help she needed to study.

"Money was definitely an issue with me," she said during an interview Tuesday.

IBM lured her away from teaching through a "My Fair Ladies" recruiting campaign that placed brochures on campuses, offering jobs for women. Though she wasn't the first woman hired by the company, she signed on in 1957, expecting to earn enough to pay off loans and return to teaching.

Instead she found the thrill of facing and overcoming challenges and broke into computer science decades before information technology experts began contemplating an apparent lack of interest among women.

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